Johnny Hallyday, long known as “the Elvis of France,” died Wednesday at age 74, according to many news outlets. A cause of death wasn’t reported, but he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer in March.
Hallyday also was a big Route 66 fan. More on that in a moment.
Hallyday, born Jean-Philippe Leo Smet in Paris, sold more than 110 million records — many of them well-known American rock ‘n’ roll songs with French lyrics — and sold out countless tours in a career that spanned more than a half-century.
Save for neighboring Belgium, he wasn’t well-regarded outside of France because he was regarded as too derivative of other rock ‘n’ roll artists. But there’s no doubt he made an immense impact on the popular culture of his home nation. The Guardian of London reported:
Even his sternest critics, though, would concede that Hallyday was one of rock’s great showmen, almost certainly the only French performer capable not just of selling out, on three successive nights, the Stade de France, but of holding its 80,000-strong crowd rapt in the palm of his hand. His last great free concert, on Bastille Day 2009, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, drew a live audience of between 800,000 and 1 million people.
And Hallyday wasn’t immune to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, either. More from the New York Times:
Mr. Hallyday gave his fans more than recycled Elvis. His hard drinking, car crashes, wild partying and tempestuous love life made him a permanent headline in the French popular press. Readers breathlessly followed his on-again, off-again marriage to the glamorous singer and actress Sylvie Vartan, a roller-coaster relationship that led Mr. Hallyday to attempt suicide twice.
This nugget from the Times obituary is indicative of Hallyday’s popularity in France. In 1993, he released a limited-edition, 42-CD box set to mark his 50th birthday. The $1,000 collection sold all 8,000 copies in two days.
Hallyday’s death prompted salutes on Twitter from music artists such as Lenny Kravitz and Celine Dion and statements of sympathy from high-ranking members of the French government.
Hallyday’s embrace of American culture also extended to Route 66. In 2009, he embarked on “Tour 66” series of concerts, name-checking the Mother Road.
He took several trips on Route 66. You can see glimpses of several Route 66 landmarks in Arizona and New Mexico in this clip from the fall of 2016:
Because he was not well-known outside of France, Hallyday could travel all over America without worrying about paparazzi or hordes of star-struck fans (save for the occasional French tourist).Such experiences had to prove refreshing for him.
According to several French media outlets, Hallyday spent some of his last hours with friends, looking at videos from those American road trips.
(Hat tip to Philippe; image of Johnny Hallyday in 2012 by rufus via Flickr)